Egyptians will vote in the second round of parliamentary elections on Sunday and Monday, but the party that won the most seats in the last contest will be absent from the ballot. So will most voters, with turnout numbers barely cracking double digits.
Much has changed in Egypt since parliamentary elections were last held, in two rounds in December 2011 and January 2012. In what was hailed as the first free election in Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, linked to the formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood, garnered 37.5 percent of the vote and got the Brotherhood into power for the first time in its nearly 90-year history. That did not last long.
Parliament was dissolved in 2013 as part of a military takeover of the government that culminated in the removal of Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood member and the country's first democratically elected president, in a coup led by General Abdel Fatteh el Sisi, his minister of defense.
Now, with Sisi president and many Brotherhood members and the group's leadership in prison or exile, Brotherhood supporters are boycotting the vote, both the first round held last month and the second and final round this Sunday and Monday.
"We don't want to legitimize it," said a member of the Brotherhood, who asked that his name be withheld because of the government's campaign of arrests against the group's members.
It's not the first time they are facing this situation: the Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned by president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Restrictions were loosened as the government began to allow some political freedoms in the last decade of Hosni Mubarak's regime. The Brotherhood first openly ran members in Egypt's semi-free parliamentary elections in 2000, and won about 20 percent of seats in 2005. In both cases, it could not run under its name and presented its candidates as independents.
After Mubarak was forced from power by demonstrations in 2011, the Brotherhood's sister party became the biggest in Egypt, doubling its size in parliament.
Now, with the Brotherhood out of the game and the Freedom and Justice Party dissolved by court order, many faces from the old regime are reemerging — and many former members of parliament who lost or did not run in the 2012 elections are running again.
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One of those is Waheed Fouda, a candidate in Mansoura, a city of about 700,00 located north of Cairo in the Nile Delta. Fouda was a former member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, the dominant political faction in the country under the 30-year regime. His statements could be lifted straight from the platitudes that veiled Egypt's brand of authoritarianism in the Mubarak era.
"All the candidates support the state and stability," he said when pressed for an answer on his platform. "My wish is for Egypt to be better than the United States."
Asked whether the absence of the Brotherhood and of virtually all opposition to the government represented a democratic process, Fouda avoided a direct answer. The numbers, however, indicate that the vast majority of Egyptians isn't showing up at the polls.
Parliamentary elections are held in two stages in Egypt, first in one part of the country then the other. According to the country's electoral commission, it is because there are not enough election officials and judges to hold elections in the entire country at the same time.
The first round was held in October. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail announced a turnout of 15 percent of eligible voters, a figure that may appear impossibly low — but even that number is exaggerated, at least according to the Brotherhood, which still continues to operate underground as it had done for decades.
But even the head of the committee of judges monitoring the elections could not contain his amusement at a fairly absurd situation. Asked by a television reporter whether there had been any violations of procedure, Abdullah Fathy laughed and said there had been no violations, because there were no voters.
Fouda said he expected better turnout in the second round than in the first, perhaps because his aides were planning to help transport his supporters to the polls, an apparent pre-planned violation of election rules.
Supporters at a rally in Mansoura on Thursday evening said the reason they would vote for him was that he had used the wealth from his family's cereal manufacturing plant to help the city's poor. They praised Sisi loudly and repeatedly, while characterizing the Muslim Brotherhood as "devils" and the tools of "foreign agendas."
Yet Fouda himself did not speak at the rally. That reinforced the impression that this election may mark a return to a system of governance based on patronage, as opposed to a competition of ideas and political platforms.
The Brotherhood isn't the only one boycotting the proceedings, either. Also staying away from the polls are supporters of a wide range of smaller, often secular, parties that opposed the military's takeover and have also been subjected to government crackdowns.
Also not showing up this time are the international monitoring groups, including the Carter Center, that certified the 2012 ballot as largely free and fair. The former American president's nonprofit organization was not allowed back to monitor this year's vote.
Follow David Enders on Twitter: @davidjenders